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Alessia Tessari

Associate Professor

Department of Psychology

Academic discipline: M-PSI/01 General Psychology

Research

Keywords: motor learning Object use ideomotor apraxia Body representations exercise and cognitive processes exercise and cognitive ageing

My research mainly focuses on the functional and neural mechanisms underlying the representation of body and object use and also deals with the development of an anatomo-functional model of action recognition and imitation. More recent interests are about the effect of exercise on cognitive abilities along the lifespan and with a special interest on its effect in contrasting cognitive ageing. These issues are approached by using behavioral, psychophysical and neuropsychological methods in healthy and neurological patients.

Action imitation and representation
Imitation is a cognitive ability that allows humans to learn complex movements by observation and takes place throughout the lifetime of the individuals. So far research has concentrated on two processes to reproduce movements (a process retrieving information on actions we already possess in long-term memory, and a processing allowing to decompose the seen actions in simpler elements and to translate them in motor acts) and the factors that determine their selection. In this project research focuses on: a) the role of frontal lobe in controlling and supervising the parietal areas responsible for motor control; b) the role of body representations in the imitation processes in both healthy subjects (adults and children) and neurological patients.

2) Body representation
The aim this project is to analyze the cognitive processes and the brain mechanisms governing the representation of the body. In particular, it investigates: a) " if" and "what" changes are induced by physical alterations of the body  (e.g. traumatic amputation of a limb); or b) how the body representation mainly linked to either actions (i.e. the body schema) or a visual-spatial representation (i.e the structural representation of the body) interact with each other. To this aim healthy subjects, brain damaged patients and amputees will be submitted to experiments investigating which brain areas are mainly involved in this function and which information is crucial to build the representation of one's own body.

3) Object use
The cognitive processes and the anatomical substrates involved in the interaction with objects and the representation of their use will be investigated in both healthy individuals, neurological patients and individuals with body anomalies. Both functional knowledge and affordances will be studied. In particular object use will be tested in patients with brain injury and specific deficits related to motor control (i.e. patients with ideational or ideomotor apraxia).

4) Effects of exercise on cognitive abilities
Recent studies have highlighted the beneficial effect of exercise and physical activity on cognitive abilities, and especially executive functions. Aim of this project is to investigate the effects of physical activities with different cognitive loads  (open vs. closed skills) on a variety of cognitive processes in adults (both young and old adults) and children. Besides theoretical aspects, the projects aims at developing tailored physical training programs for either maintaining good cognitive abilities in the healthy elderly or slowing cognitive decline in individuals with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).